China plans to launch a pair of crewed missions to its new space station this year, with supplies also heading to orbit on a Tianzhou cargo ship.
The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced on Wednesday (Feb. 15) that it plans to launch the Shenzhou 16 crew mission to the newly operational Tiangong space station in May, with Shenzhou 17 following nearly six months later, in October.
Each Shenzhou crew spacecraft will carry three astronauts, whose identities usually remain secret until the day before their launch on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
The robotic Tianzhou 6 freighter will also launch in May to deliver supplies and propellant to Tiangong ahead of the astronaut missions. That mission will launch from China's coastal spaceport on Hainan island on a Long March 7 rocket.
China has previously launched a Tianzhou cargo craft just before each Shenzhou mission heads to Tiangong. However, Tianzhou's manufacturer, the China Academy of Space Technology, has expanded the cargo capacity of its pressurized segment by about 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms), meaning China now needs to launch just three supply missions every two years instead of four.
CMSA is also soliciting designs for patches for the missions in a space outreach effort. China's space authorities have previously held contests to name spacecraft, including its Yutu lunar rover and Zhurong Mars rover.
Tiangong is currently hosting the Shenzhou 15 crew, who are nearly halfway through their 180-day stay. The crew will greet the arrival of Tianzhou 6 and Shenzhou 16, handing over control to the new crew before landing at the Dongfeng landing area near Jiuquan days later.
The Shenzhou 15 astronauts recently conducted their first spacewalk to attach new equipment to the outside of the space station.
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Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.